BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Many thought before this season started that the Chicago Fire would be a solid defensive team.
After all, they had a strong back line, a steady and experienced defensive midfielder in Logan Pause and a young, talented goalkeeper in Sean Johnson returning this season fresh off his first cap with the US national team.
But the Fire largely failed to live up to expectations this spring, allowing 19 goals in the 11 games before head coach Carlos de los Cobos was fired late last month. That left interim boss Frank Klopas to pick up the pieces and reemphasize one of the longtime fundamentals of the club: The defense has to hold.
Since then, however, something has unmistakably changed. They’ve looked more organized, they’ve communicated better and Johnson appears to have found his form.
And there’s no arguing the results: The Fire have earned three straight shutouts since Klopas took over, heading into a matchup at New England on Saturday (7:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online).
There's no one reason for the team’s defensive renaissance. Rather, the club thinks that several factors, including the maturation of young players and a switch in set-piece tactics, have made all the difference in their three-game shutout streak.
“I think everyone is just maturing,” Fire defender Gonzalo Segares told MLSsoccer.com on Tuesday. “I think the younger guys are maturing in those positions and we’re not making the same mental mistakes that we were making at the beginning. I think we’re sharper.”
The set-piece play has been particularly important. The team gave up seven goals on set-plays under de los Cobos’ zonal marking scheme, but has looked much better since Klopas switched to man-marking.
Klopas said that the Fire can credit their defensive resurgence to improved transition play and increased team effort.
“It’s just a different mentality, a different approach to the game,” Klopas said. “It’s not just the back four or five or six; defending as a team starts on top with the forwards. We show tapes, we keep working on staying compact with the ball, and the most important thing in the game is transition, so when we have the ball we got to be organized in a way that if we lose it … we’re in good spots to win it back."
“It’s a lot of guys that do a lot of little things that go unnoticed,” he added, “but it’s been more of a team effort than anything else.”
Still, there’s also been a fair bit of luck in the recent steak, and the Fire know it. The most notable break came late in last Thursday’s scoreless draw against Sporting in Kansas City, when right back Bratislav Ristic appeared to foul SKC forward Omar Bravo but wasn’t whistled on the play.
“Like I’ve told the boys before, we’ve been fortunate a good amount of times in these past shutouts,” Fire center back Cory Gibbs said. “Luck has gone our way a couple times and the ball bounced our way. In other games it might not be that way.”
Whether it’s luck or the change in philosophy or a bit of both, it’s working. The Fire are suddenly four points out of playoff spot, and looking to keep their momentum going at least another week.
“We just have to keep working hard,” Segares said. “If we get a few more points we’re right there.”
Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @samstejskal.